Louisiana Parish Pursues Hangar, Grants to Become Drone Hub

The unmanned aircraft program plans to begin remotely operating cargo operations by 2020, with fully autonomous aircraft coming to the region by 2025, with help from federal grants and local matching.

by Julia Arenstam, The Houma Courier / May 9, 2019
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(TNS) — The new director of the Houma-Terrebonne Airport Commission in southern Louisiana is putting decades of military and commercial flight hours to use to advance the parish's new unmanned aircraft program.

Mert Pellegrin, a Houma native and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, introduced himself to the Terrebonne Parish Council tonight and gave an update on the parish's plan for economic diversification.

The Airport Commission has been working with various public and private entities, including the parish, Nicholls State University, Fletcher Technical Community College, the University of North Dakota and industry leaders such as Era Helicopters, Aurora Flight Research, 2SF and soon one of the area's largest oil and gas companies.

The unmanned aircraft program plans to begin remotely operating cargo operations by 2020, with fully autonomous aircraft coming to the region by 2025. The joint venture is being called the Gulf of Mexico UAS Center of Excellence, or UGC.

The project is expected to be awarded a $1.5 million federal grant to jump start the program, Pellegrin said.

The Airport Commission has also pledged $200,000 along with $300,000 from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

The first phase of the project, which includes building a 40,000-square-foot hangar is expected to cost about $2.3 million.

Once the system is fully in place, large unmanned fixed-wing aircraft will be able to go out for up to a week at a time, Pellegrin said.

Era Helicopters has already donated one aircraft that is expected to be the first fully automated aircraft to deliver cargo to the Gulf of Mexico, he said.

When the program is underway with courses beginning at Nicholls and Fletcher, the airport will look to fully integrate the area high schools into the new industry, airport officials said.

Many of the council members congratulated Pellegrin on his new role and commended his expertise in the field.

"It impresses me we found someone of your character here locally," Councilman Steve Trosclair said, noting Pellegrin was one of the first pilots to land on an aircraft carrier.

"What a great asset to this parish, you coming on board," Councilwoman Christa Duplantis-Prather said.

©2019 The Houma Courier, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.